Children detained at the Baltimore County Detention Center are locked up for 23 hours a day in rodent-infested cells that sometimes flood with sewage water, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender wrote in a letter to county leaders this week.
The jail is not complying with federal laws governing juvenile detention, said Deborah St. Jean, director of the public defender’s Juvenile Protection Division. She asked for the “immediate transfer” of detained youth to the Department of Juvenile Services.
“Our administration is carefully reviewing the letter and the concerning allegations it raised,” Baltimore County spokesperson Erica Palmisano said in a statement Thursday. “We will closely evaluate current policies and provide a thorough response.”
In 2018, staff from the public defender’s Juvenile Protection Division visited the jail and found the facility was supervising juveniles inadequately and not complying with education laws, as well as failing to separate juveniles from adults as required by law or using isolation to do so, the letter said.
Following that investigation, then-Baltimore County Director of Corrections Gail Watts said in an affidavit that jail leadership believed the facility was not equipped to hold youth and they potentially faced a higher risk of violence and sexual assault there, according to the letter.
Staff from the public defender’s office visited the jail again in November and found conditions were unchanged from 2018.
Juveniles were allowed to leave their cells for just one hour a day to either shower or make a phone call, but not both, according to St. Jean’s letter.
“Many of the kids expressed that they were depressed and had trouble sleeping,” said Alyssa Fieo, an education attorney and assistant public defender who interviewed youth at the jail in November.
Fieo said the teenagers she interviewed complained about being allowed to leave their cells for just one hour a day and asked for counseling.
The letter said the unit was infested with rodents and “plumbing regularly floods cells with contaminated toilet water and debris.” While in the intake unit, detainees sleep on mats on the floor and do not receive schooling, the letter said. Children in the jail have struggled to access doctors, must pay for items like soap and shampoo, and don’t receive mental health services.
“One child who has been held for two years has not been outside during his detention,” St. Jean wrote in the letter.
The public defender’s investigation found juvenile detainees were “left isolated and idle” without access to books or TV in their cells and fed “unhealthy and inadequate” food.
“These children have never been found guilty of anything,” said Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender. “We are doing enormous damage to these children.”
The Maryland Youth Justice Coalition called the public defender’s report “shocking” and “disturbing” and called for the youth at the county jail to be transferred to state juvenile facilities in a news release Thursday.
Serene Holmes said her son became depressed when the 17-year-old was sent to the Baltimore County Detention Center in December 2018 after being charged with armed robbery.
“That very first call was heart-wrenching,” Holmes said. “I had to tell him to stop crying, they’re going to see you as vulnerable.”
Holmes said the education her son was offered was unstructured, a marked difference from a juvenile facility where staff made him go to classes, socialize and take accountability for his actions. Her son called the food served at the jail “sweaty betty meat,” because the sandwich meat appeared to be wet, Holmes said.
Holmes said fighting was common and when she called her son, she could hear boys taunting him.
“I could hear the threats in the background,” she said.
“You treat them with all this trauma, to a child whose brain is still developing, and then you send them out and expect for them to just to what, just forget about this trauma, forget about how you had them housed in these conditions?” she said.
Baltimore County NAACP Branch President Danita Tolson called the conditions described in the letter “unacceptable.” Tolson said that as a nurse, she was particularly concerned about the health of people living and working in the jail.
“It has to be livable conditions,” she said.
Since 2015, children automatically charged as adults in Maryland who are “transfer eligible” are held pretrial by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services instead of in adult jails.
However, exceptions exist and judges can order youth be held in adult jail if placement in a juvenile facility would “would pose a risk to the child or others” or if the Department of Juvenile Services determines there is not available capacity in a juvenile facility.
Prosecutors can ask judges to place juveniles charged as adults in adult jails. The public defender’s letter was addressed to Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, among other county and state officials.
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Shellenberger said Friday that his office has no involvement with the jail. Asked why Baltimore County prosecutors request juveniles be held in the adult jail, he said: “Everything we do is based upon our view of the safety of the community. That’s what we care about.”
Legislation being considered by the Maryland General Assembly this session would end the automatic charging of juveniles as adults for serious offenses. The Youth Equity and Safety Act would require that kids facing charges enter the criminal justice system through the juvenile courts. State’s attorneys would bear the burden of convincing judges that the case should be tried in adult court.
St. Jean’s letter also raised concerns about Maryland’s federal grant funding for juvenile services, which she wrote could be reduced if the state is not complying with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
Because a juvenile charged as an adult cannot be held in an adult facility unless particular exceptions apply, the Baltimore County jail is violating one of the “core requirements” of the federal law, the letter said.
There were 657 preliminary violations of the law in federal fiscal year 2022 in Maryland reported to a state advisory group in January, said Joseph Cueto, a spokesperson from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services, in a statement Thursday.
States have a two-year grace period, which expires next year, while the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice Prevention determines a threshold for the number of violations a state can have before 20% of their grant funding is cut, said Cueto, adding that Maryland is currently in compliance with the law.
Baltimore Sun reporter Hannah Gaskill contributed to this article.